Online Professional Skill-Building at Denison University Gives Students an Edge

2020-09-23T18:02:21+00:00June 12, 2018|

Yes, there’s a labor shortage, and it would seem that it is easier than ever for a college graduate to find not just a job, but a job with career potential. But to a student who is only just beginning to prepare for post-college life, the process of securing either an internship, or well-paid, satisfying employment can be daunting.

Denison University is one college that has been searching for effective ways to help its students transition from college to the workforce. The college knows that its graduates have a lot to offer. However, as liberal arts students, they may not have the exposure to the business or industry knowledge that can help them shine in job interviews. Yet, it’s inevitable that most college graduates will work in a variety of settings that involve business, finance, and office tools, regardless of how they apply their degrees in the liberal arts.

In fact, workforce analytics company Burning Glass has been a champion of the liberal arts this past year. In breaking down the skills employers list as job requirements, Burning Glass has seen upward trends in hiring for the very qualities that liberal arts graduates are known for: critical thinking, writing, problem-solving, numeracy, etc.

But it has also pointed out that job requirements for individual roles are increasingly made of skills from multiple degrees. According to an article on the Burning Glass website:

“In a 12-month period (April 2014–March 2015), more than a quarter million advertised job postings sought hybrid talent in positions such as User Experience Designer, Data Scientist, and Product Manager.”

Burning Glass goes on to say:

“…these positions call for a set of skills that aren’t typically taught as a package. The training ecosystem preparing job seekers for these roles is relatively weak, and these roles do not typically align well with established higher education programs.”

How to Improve Career Outcomes: The Discovery Phase

Searching for ways to improve career outcomes for its students, Denison probed alumni with questions about their professional experiences. In light of seeing some of the same trends reported by Burning Glass, these alumni asked if there wasn’t a way to level the playing field for its students. What could be done to give students a leg up, especially when competing against job candidates who do have business degrees?

To answer this question, the college began a discovery process involving employers, advanced online course tools and student interest. In a ‘design thinking,’ empathy-driven style, the university laid out criteria for a solution. Any efforts in this area had to be based in the college’s mission and take place outside of the timeframe of students’ academic coursework in order to protect the solid liberal arts education that Denison is known for. Therefore, any effort absolutely could not be used as a replacement for its academic courses. But, it still had to easily fit into students’ off time.

Denison also reached out to local employers to ask what skills they look for in their entry-level workers. Among the responses: proficiency in Microsoft Excel, data analysis and a basic understanding of financial terms such as ‘profit and loss.’

Based on the feedback, the college realized the ideal solution would involve providing introductory exposure to a topic or skill. The goal would be to give students a sense of familiarity with the material so that they could speak to it in a job interview and be prepared to apply their knowledge in a new job setting without having to start from zero.

The Solution: OnBoard Microlearning in the Career Center

In 2015, Denison launched OnBoard, a noncredit-bearing, online learning program in its Career Center. Unique to the program is that it is only accessible between academic semesters. Microlearning-sized courses are available online only during summer, winter and spring breaks.

OnBoard offers online course modules on 60 topics. They are short and can usually be completed within a few hours or a day depending on the student’s pace.

Topics range from technology to general skills that foster workplace excellence, often called soft skills. Among the more popular topics are personal finance, project management and professional etiquette.


Lars Soderbergh, a 2016 graduate of Denison, shared in a 2017 article on the university’s website how OnBoard made a difference in his job search. “It came up in interviews, and employers were interested that I made the extra effort to develop useful skills.”

According to Hank Malin, the executive director of the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration at Denison University, student participation in OnBoard grew by 50 percent year-over-year during each of the last three semester breaks.

“Both employers and students are really excited about it,” said Malin. “Any time a student has an internship lined up, we’ll work with the student to reach out to the employer and ask whether it would be beneficial to have the student spend time on any of the OnBoard topics. The employers love that we’re thinking about it, and the students go in feeling more confident,”

Buy-in from faculty is also strong. It’s easy to see that OnBoard aligns with Denison’s mission as a liberal arts college that wants to prepare students to “not just find a job, but build a life.”

Denison President Adam S. Weinberg championed the program and helped ensure that faculty understood how students benefit, while underscoring that OnBoard would not compete with or replace academic courses.

This is truly one of the more innovative approaches to bringing higher ed into the future, while honoring its mission, that we have seen in our own travels throughout the higher ed landscape. In fact, Weinberg was honored for his thought leadership in the careers field with an inaugural award from The National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Founded in 1831, Denison has a rich history in the liberal arts. Yet there is no “either/or” here. The innovative approach only complements Denison’s traditions and values. And it’s clear that in addition to the liberal arts, Denison values relationships, mentoring, and positioning students for lives of success – all attributes that are supported by OnBoard. For more on Denison’s outstanding effort to use structural and cultural forces to encourage mentorships, see this article by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s an honor for us at Collegis Education to work with Denison University and we are so glad to see it thriving! And yes, we are humbled and proud to share that OnBoard courses were created by our staff instructional designers.

Denison University’s OnBoard program will be the focus of a session at the 30th Annual CLAC Conference on June 21, 2018.

About the Author
James Cowie
President and Chief Executive Officer, Collegis Education, as well as Trustee Emeritus of Colby College and Life Trustee of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Education: Colby College and Stanford University